Advances in forensic technology over the past decades have improved the chances that perpetrators of sexual violence are apprehended and that justice is served for survivors of sexual assault. Sexual assault kits (SAKs) collected from forensic examinations of survivors have the potential to identify offenders in unsolved crimes, corroborate identities of offenders, and exonerate the wrongly accused. That is, if they are submitted to laboratories for biological testing. Unfortunately, many SAKs are not tested immediately, and some are never tested at all. Growing awareness about the power of testing SAKs has led to many states requiring that their law enforcement agencies (LEAs) conduct inventories of unsubmitted SAKs. When North Carolina recently conducted such an inventory, more than 15,000 SAKs were discovered that had never been submitted for testing. While these one-time inventories provide value in indicating there is reason for concern, they do not illuminate the systemic problems that are responsible for SAKs being shelved.
Through projects such as the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, victim advocates, sexual assault nurse examiners, and forensic analysts are working together to understand why some SAKs are not submitted for testing and to establish best practices for processing them. Through this effort, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation has released a report identifying inadequate training, a lack of resources and sensible policies, and insufficient societal awareness as key factors that have facilitated a system that allows unanalyzed SAKs to accrue.
Recognizing the need for research-informed recommendations around SAK processing, RTI published results from a National Institute of Justice study that aimed to identify policies, practices, or characteristics of jurisdictions that have strong records for SAK processing “efficiency.” Using a mixed-methods approach comprising national surveys and in-depth interviews with key experts, RTI researchers examined intra- and interagency dynamics associated with SAK processing efficiency in a linked sample of crime laboratories (N=145) and LEAs (N=321).
Findings from the study show that on average, LEAs submit fewer than 60 percent of the SAKs collected, based on the resources they have available. Critically, a lack of resources, rather than technical inefficiencies, were mostly to blame for the accumulation of unsubmitted SAKs. Specifically, most LEAs would still have a backlog, even if they were using all their resources to their maximum potential. The study also revealed that staffing resources and progressive policies in both LEAs and laboratories are essential for efficient SAK processing. For instance, the average laboratory could increase the number of SAKs it tests annually by 43 percent by doubling the number of analysts it employs. In addition, 100 percent submission policies in LEAs and evidence acceptance policies in laboratories were each associated with a greater number of SAKs being processed at the jurisdictional level.
Based on these findings, we recommend that jurisdictions implement accountability processes such as evidence tracking systems to identify delays or impasses in SAK processing. We also suggest that they work diligently to understand why SAKs have accumulated and to develop policies and procedures that ensure no survivor is denied a chance for justice. Agencies must invest in staffing, putting processes in place that help them to recruit, train, and retain personnel and ultimately to create sustainable and efficient SAK processing systems. It is also critical that LEAs, laboratories, and other key stakeholders work together to form multidisciplinary policies that clearly identify the circumstances under which SAKs will be submitted, describe the timeframe for submissions, and require agencies to document when and why some SAKS will not be tested. Through the establishment of efficient SAK processing systems, jurisdictions can ensure that victims receive the justice and closure they deserve while improving case outcomes.